Eggplant Salad

Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic
Eggplant salad with peppers and garlic. Photo mine, April 2017.

Recently, I have found myself craving eggplant all the time – and I have perhaps become addicted to the tannic and earthy taste of a vegetable that is actually a giant berry. And so, given my passions and my interests, I have also been researching the Jewish history of this most extraordinary plant. Today, the eggplant is so associated with Israel that it is difficult to believe that eggplants were not, in fact, present during the First and Second Temple period. Rather, the plant is from India – and the word “aubergine” in English and French comes via Arabic and Persian from the Sanskrit vatiga-gamah, which might be related to the word for flatulence. I cannot speak to that effect, but I can say that eggplants reached the Jewish Mediterranean in about the 7th century CE.

White, five-petaled flower of a wild eggplant, with little green fruit behind.
Flower of a wild eggplant. (Photo Michael Khor/CC-Flickr)

Eggplants have long been a beloved mainstay of Sephardic cooking – and show up in all sorts of pastries, stews, and salads. Folk songs wage a fight between the eggplant and tomato (another newcomer), which were long considered the two favorite vegetables of the Sephardi community. In Morocco, Jews and non-Jews make a pungent and delicious salad called za’alouk with eggplant, as well as a lovely eggplant jam. Moroccan Jews even candy eggplant! Ashkenazi Jews historically only ate eggplant in Hungary and Romania, but developed an attachment to the plant there as well. Eggplants were one of the first foods adopted by settlers in Israel and Palestine in the early 20th century, and today eggplant might as well be a food group in Israel.

Eggplant pieces
Delicious eggplant, before cooking. (Photo mine, March 2016.)

This salad is a riff on a recipe more typical in Israel today – one often called a “Moroccan” eggplant salad, though it is somewhat different from typical salades cuites. As in North Africa and Turkey, “salad” in Hebrew, or salat, can also refer to small plates of vegetable dishes served at the beginning or as part of a meal. Even in English, the term salatim is now frequently used among Hebrew-speaking Jews. The eggplant used in Israel is smaller and fried more deeply in oil, whereas I have used the larger Mediterranean eggplant. I also have added more garlic, because garlic is delicious. In any case, this eggplant salad – though given that it is cooked I hesitate to say “salad” – is easy, delicious, and goes well with many other dishes.

Fried Eggplant Salad (Salat Khatzilim Metuganim)

2 small-to-medium eggplants, chopped into 1cm/ 1/3 inch slices (optionally salted)

1 bell pepper, finely chopped

1 chili pepper, finely chopped

6 cloves garlic, crushed

2 tbsp lemon juice

Salt, to taste

Olive or vegetable oil

  1. Heat a wide skillet or pan, then add about 2cm/1 inch of oil. Fry the eggplant in the oil until soft and darkened on both sides, flipping as necessary.
  2. Remove the eggplant with a slotted spoon, leaving the oil in the pan. Set the eggplant aside to cool.
  3. In the same oil, sauté the peppers and garlic until the pepper begins to soften and the garlic is thoroughly browned. Remove, with the oil, from the heat. Set aside to cool.
  4. Mix the leftover oil-garlic-pepper mixture with the lemon juice. Then, pour this “dressing” over the eggplant, and mix well.
  5. Add salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Reader Contributions – My Hanukkah Presents!

And now, a few mini-posts based on reader contributions! Happy Hanukkah! Though your author does not follow the prevailing American custom of giving gifts on Hanukkah, he does appreciate them.

Next month, we’ll have a guest recipe from Dalya and Adele, friends of the blog in Oxford, for her grandmother’s traditional German-Jewish Potato Salad. As quotidian as it sounds, the salad is absolutely phenomenal: the balance of flavors between sour and earthy, hearty and delicate, and sweet and salty is phenomenal. Like their Gentile neighbors, Jews in Germany took quite a shine to the potato – Kartoffel – in the eighteenth century.

Peeled potatoes
Peeled potatoes about to meet their fate as latkes. Photo mine, November 2015.

The salad merits a full-length post, but to quell your hunger in the meantime, I found through the Jewish food internet the incredible work of Gabrielle Rossmer Gropman and her daughter Sonya Gropman, whose website German Jewish Cuisine is an incredible treasure trove of German Jewish culinary history and Weltanschauung – worldview. Their German Jewish Cookbook is coming out next year and I absolutely cannot wait to buy it. Check the website out here: https://germanjewishcuisine.com/.


A reader from Pittsburgh, Steffi, sent me a fascinating paper about tea and Mormon feminism that she completed in her master’s studies at Chatham University’s Food Studies program. This paper made me realize that many of you have been doing incredible work at school or in your jobs writing about food, thinking about food, and doing the work of studying food. So, if you want some eyes on something you are justly proud of, feel free to send them my way!


The cover of The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore, by Professor Avshalom Mizrahi.
The cover of The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore, by Professor Avshalom Mizrahi (Photo mine, December 2016, book is from 2002)

Our reader – and my dear friend – Hadassah in the United Kingdom has requested more Yemenite Jewish recipes. Though I have written about Yemenite Jewish foodways in the past – first on samneh and then on hilbeh – I have not made many Yemenite recipes for the blog. Nor do I have much experience with Yemenite Jewish cooking – as rich and multifaceted as it is. In honor of Hanukkah, I turned to the one book I do have on the subject – the Hebrew-language “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love, and Folklore” (Ha-Mitbakh ha-Teimani: Khawaij, Ahavah veFolklor) by Avshalom Mizrahi. The book itself is a fascinating interspersion of discussions of Yemenite Jewish food practice and recipes themselves. In the book I found, for Shavuot and Hanukkah, the appealing zalabye, a sort of Yemenite sfenj:

Zalabye – Fritters – “The Yemenite Sufganiyot”

Originally printed in “The Yemenite Kitchen: Hawaij, Love and Folklore” by Avshalom Mizrahi, translated from the Hebrew by me

Makes ten zalabye

½ kilo/1 lb flour

20 grams yeast

2 cups water

Salt

Mix all of the ingredients together: flour, yeast, salt and water until the rough parts in the dough are gone. Heat oil well in a deep frying pan. Roll out the dough into big balls and add into the hot oil. Fry on both sides until brown. The zalabye will not be uniform in shape.

Serve and eat hot. Those with a sweet tooth can add or dip the fritters in sugar or honey.

These fresh, hot fritters are a treat to eat on winter mornings and on the holiday of the giving of the Torah – Shavu’ot.

And, as a bonus, later in the book Professor Mizrahi discusses zalabye again: (also my translation)

Zalabye – Fritters for Hanukkah and Shavuot

The fritters zalabye, though eaten throughout the year (mainly in the time of winter), were one of two components of Jewish festivals. Yemenite Jews treated themselves to eat these “sufganiyot”[-like fritters] on Hanukkah and to be eaten especially for the morning meal on the holiday of the gift of the Torah, Shavuot.

Pesach of Colors VI: Keftes de Prasa (Black)

Khag kasher ve-sameakh – a happy and kosher Passover! I’m posting this from Israel, where I will be spending the holiday with my grandparents, who live in a seniors’ home for South Africans in the town of Herzliyya. Wherever you are, I wish you a happy holiday.

Keftes de prasa
Keftes de prasa – I’ve put them on a paper towel to suck up some of the oil. Photo mine, April 2016

I want to end our Pesach series with a very simple and tasty Passover dish – the traditional Sephardic Balkan keftes de prasa, or leek fritters – whose black bits of crispy fried goodness are the final color.  These treats are traditional Passover fare among the Sephardic communities of the Balkans – Serbia, Turkey, and Greece above all – but also have been served for other holidays as well. I first tried them at an event for Hanukkah – when, like latkes and doughnuts, a leek patty fried in oil would be most seasonal. Yet it is for Pesach that these crispy vegetable patties are now popular.

Leeks themselves have a lengthy Jewish history. The vegetable is mentioned in the Biblical Book of Numbers as one the Jews yearn for from their time of slavery in Egypt, for they “were wont to eat…the leeks, and the onions.” Regardless, the vegetable was probably prominent in ancient Israelite cooking, and was spread by the Romans throughout the Mediterranean region. German Ashkenazim indeed would later use the vegetable, and it saw limited use in Eastern Europe, but this infrequent use paled in comparison to the leek’s appearance on the tables of Sephardim. Gil Marks remarked that the leek was the “single most important vegetable” of Sephardic cooking in the Ottoman Empire, and ended up in everything – soups, stews, patties, and pastries. The keftes de prasa are attested from the Ottoman period – and indeed, their name reflect the Turkish köfte (patty) and Ladino and Greek prasa (leek). These treats, however, are enjoyed by all.

Keftes de Prasa

Makes 12-20 Fritters

A Passover adaptation from the Jewish Women’s Archive

 

Two large leeks, thoroughly washed and chopped

1 cup matzah meal

3 eggs

1 tbsp salt

1 tsp pepper

1 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp nutmeg

 

Water

Olive oil for frying

 

  1. A note: you really should make sure your leeks are thoroughly washed before you chop. Consult this guide to learn how to have clean leeks! Then chop.
  2. Boil the chopped leeks in water for five minutes, or until somewhat soft, but with some solidity. Drain the leeks and set aside. Let cool.
  3. Mix the boiled leeks and the ingredients other than the oil in a bowl until you have a thick, thoroughly mixed batter.
  4. Heat a pan, then add the oil. Then, spoon in large clumps of batter, one at a time, evenly in the oil.
  5. Fry for 2-4 minutes, or until brown on the done side, and flip to fry the other side. When both sides are brown, remove from the pan. Repeat until you are done with the batter.
  6. Serve hot – some folks serve straight from the pan – or warm. I’ve never tested these after reheating – they have been eaten quickly.

 

The author would like to thank Jeremy Swack for being part of the User Acceptance Testing for this recipe.

Chicken Soup / Mock Chicken Soup Part III: The Additions (but mostly Matzah Balls)

For part one, click here. For part two, click here.

Author’s note: I will discuss non-Ashkenazi additions at length, b”h, in future posts.

Kneidlach/matzoh balls in a pot
Kneidlach/matzoh balls in a pot, waiting to be served. (Photo Ohayon Avi and the GPO-Israel, October 2011, via CC/Wikimedia)

Jews have added stuff to soup ever since Jacob made something tasty and distracting for Esau. Some of these are not as well-known, others, such as matzah balls, noodles, and kubbeh, are widely praised. Now that you have your soup, you may want to add some of these. But which?

In the Ashkenazi culinary tradition, the humble matzah ball is probably ranked highest. These soft and fluffy dumplings, also known as kneidlach (sg. Kneidel), are made from ground matzah – the wafers that substitute for bread and other leavened products during Passover. They are often thought of as the quintessential Jewish dish – American Jewish media has canonized kneidlach for over a century, and Ashkenazi Jews the world over consider the soup an essential part of holiday and Shabbat celebrations. Yet this dumpling shows clear similarity to and influence from other European dumplings – for example, the German Knödel and Czech knedliky. Even the names are similar. In fact, some writers consider the kneidel to have emerged in medieval Germany at the same time as Knödel; the dumpling then travelled east as Jews migrated into Eastern Europe. We’re glad matzah balls came along.

The matzah ball is not the only non-Jewish addition we have made to our soups. For starters, we have added kreplach – dumplings similar to the Russian pelmeni or Chinese wonton, which probably sourced in part from the mantı brought by Turkic soldiers from Central Asia in the 13th century – which are still common in Turkey today. Of course, there are lokshen – noodles, brought in via Persia and Central Asia in antiquity (where Jews call the noodles lagman), and then again from China in the Middle Ages (where they are known as laomian). Some Romanian Jews add hazelnuts – which were probably first encountered by Jews in the early medieval period as they settled around the Black Sea region. An unadulterated dish chicken soup is not.

Even the most “Jewish” of dishes reflects two thousand years of influence from our neighbors. I think that for us Ashkenazim, in the context of Eastern Europe, it is difficult for us to acknowledge external influences on our culture(s) given the long history of anti-Semitism and abuse in the region. We want to protect “our” chicken soup, its dumplings and noodles, its scattered hazelnuts or dill. Yet there is something far more liberating about saying that we not only contributed to our neighbors’ cooking, but also took things and made them Jewish. Most of the time, when I eat a kneidel, I’m enjoying the kneidel. But occasionally, I like to remind myself of how it reflects the way changes to Jewish culture (dumplings) eventually become celebrated and almost essential. If you ask me, totally essential.

I’m including a recipe here for matzah balls with the optional addition of neshommes (“souls” in Yiddish) – fried onions in the center of a kneidl. They take a bit of time to make, so we only did them for holidays growing up – but they are really worth the effort. This seems to be a Lithuanian tradition, but I’ve read that Polish Jews sometimes include gribenes – crisp, fried chicken skin cracklings with onion – in festive kneidlach. Can anyone confirm this?

Matzah Balls with Optional Neshommes

Based on the recipe of Annushka Smit Freiman

Matzah Balls

makes about 20 matzah balls

 

~2 1/4 cups matzah meal

6 eggs

1/3 cup vegetable or olive oil

1/3 cup warm water

2 tbsp salt

2 tbsp pepper

1 tbsp dried dill

 

  1. Mix all the ingredients to form a thick batter-like thing. If your batter is very thin, add more matzah meal. Refrigerate for one hour.

 

  1. With wet hands, roll the mixture into little balls of about 1.5” diameter. If adding neshommes, stick your finger into the ball to make a dent, add a tiny bit of the neshommes, and then wrap up the ball again.

 

  1. Boil in boiling water or soup for 30-35 minutes. If in soup, serve immediately. Otherwise, remove from water and keep separate until serving time for soup. I strongly recommend that you cook the matzah balls separately.

 

Neshommes

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 tbsp oil

Fry the onion in the oil until the onion is brown and very, very soft. Remove from the heat, drain out a bit of oil, and let cool before adding to matzah balls.

Sweet Plantains (Maduros) for Hanukkah

fried seasoned plantains

As a resident of Washington Heights, I see plantains everywhere. The Dominican community that calls this neighborhood home – and, in fact, predominates in much of it – has ensured that the beloved and delicious starch of the Dominican Republic is available in any food store in the Heights. Cheaply, too.  Like many Jews in the Heights (where we are another major constituency), I have also converted to having plantains as a regular part of my diet – be they boiled, steamed, fried, chopped up and put into soup, baked….

One dear reader, Mia Rachel Warshofsky, pointed out to me that fried plantains – the most traditional and delicious but by far the unhealthiest method of preparation – are traditional for Hanukkah in some Latin American Jewish communities. Given that I now live in another land of plantains, and, well, why not, I decided to make some for Hanukkah. Plantains are certainly less work than latkes – I was already frying them as an occasional treat – and also have a wonderful taste. I am very glad to have been informed of and introduced to this tradition. Thanks Mia!

And let’s not forget: plantains are a very important potential carbohydrate for another holiday as well. The Dominican-American Jewish blogger Aliza Hausman wrote this wonderful guide to plantains for Passover, which I strongly recommend reading, along with the rest of her blog.

How to Fry Your Hanukkah Plantains

  1. Make sure you have sweet plantains – yellow and/or black on the outside. Green plantains, though also delicious, require a bit more work. Maybe I will cook them some other time for you guys.
  2. Peel the plantains and cut them into discs.
  3. An optional step: some people claim that if you dip the pieces of plantain into salt water ever so briefly, they will be more tender. I don’t notice a difference, but will note it here.
  4. Heat a pan and add a good layer of oil – I would say at least ½ a centimeter or ¼ of an inch deep.
  5. Add the plantain discs, one disc side down, to the oil, and fry on each side until golden.
  6. Remove from pan when both sides are golden or caramelized-brown. Serve with spices, sugar, or a combination thereof! (The ones in the picture have salt, cinnamon, sugar, and white pepper on them. They may or may not have been dinner.)

The Hanukkah Classic: Latkes

Frying latkes in a pan, they are close to done
Frying latkes in a pan, they are close to done
Frying latkes in my college apartment – these are savory ones with onion inside! December 2013, photo mine.

If you ask most American Jews about Hanukkah, they will immediately think of a few things: candles, winter, and latkes. The latter – delicious potato fritters – are so popular that many non-Jews start to harangue their Jewish friends in late November: “when are the latkes coming?” Indeed, I have been so harangued. There is something delightfully heimish (cozy and warm-feelings) about biting into the starchy goodness of a freshly fried latke; it is, perhaps, one of the best parts of Hanukkah.

Latkes being fried in a deep pan
Frying the last of a batch of “test” latkes before Hanukkah – these soaked up the juices from the latkes fried before! Photo mine, November 2015.

As I wrote in my post about doughnuts, Hanukkah has the delightful tradition of foods fried in fantastic amounts of oil. This tradition sources from the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple, where – after prizing the Temple from Greek occupiers – the Maccabees only found one day’s worth of oil, which burned for eight days in the ritual menorah. From this incident comes the command to eat oily food – and why make a salad dressing when you can fry stuff? Already in the Middle Ages, fritters were a common Hanukkah food – the word latke, meaning patch, probably emerged then. When the potato reached Eastern Europe in the 18th century, they were simply integrated into the tradition. And boy, are we grateful.

Blynai with sour cream and herring
Blynai – potato pancakes – in Vilnius, served with red onions, pickled herring, sour cream, and mushrooms. These are all considered to be delicious things in the non-Jewish and Jewish Lithuanian palates alike. That was a good lunch. Photo mine, March 2015.

People always ask me about “authentic” latkes, but I prefer to note how the latke undoes our notions of “authenticity.” Firstly, these are considered by some to be a quintessential and timeless Ashkenazi Jewish food, but they only reached their current form in the past two centuries, after the potato had become common across Eastern Europe. Secondly, potato pancakes are pretty common across Europe, be they Lithuanian blynai or Swiss rösti or Slovak haruľa. If anything, latkes  are yet another reminder that Jewish food has never been isolated from its neighbors – nor is an “authentic” Jewish recipe Jewish alone. Finally, a concentration on authenticity just takes out all of the delicious ways latkes  have evolved in diaspora, from the addition of grated parsnips in England to the Jewish-Japanese fusion latkes of 21st-century Brooklyn. If we spend too much time worrying about the authentic, we forget that food can have a delicious life of its own. Such is the case of the latke – though I admit, I am most fond of very ordinary, plain latkes.

Peeled potatoes
Peeled potatoes about to meet their fate as latkes. Photo mine, November 2015.

Latkes come in different shapes and sizes within the Jewish world. Some think that latke tastes in prewar Europe followed the “gefilte fish line.” Just as in the case of ground fish balls, Lithuanian Jews preferred a savory latke, while the Polish preferred a sweeter latke. Toppings differ – though applesauce is considered “classic,” many prefer to augment our latkes with sour cream. Or – as I prefer – both. Some latkes are tiny and finger-sized, others make enormous latkes that are a meal alone. In America, latkes are made and served in huge quantities in both ordinary and sweet potato varieties. And of course, in Israel, latkes are almost invisible – it is the industrially-produced doughnut that is king of Hanukkah there, after the efforts of Israeli trade unions.

Potato grating
Grating the potatoes by hand. The effort is worth it! Photo mine, November 2015.

I personally find that the best way to make latkes is rather haphazard – as befitting such a simple food. I do not measure out my grated potatoes or oil, nor do I seek a specific weight. Rather, it is simply knowing by touch, feel, and sight when the latke batter is the right consistency, when it is crisp enough in the pan, when I need a thicker batter or to add another egg. Latkes can be surprisingly tricky: grated potatoes are a mischievous and quickly-shifting ingredient, and flipping requires a technical skill greater than that of ordinary fritters or pancakes. One can also make last-minute additions: some black pepper, a few potato skins for color, or – my favorite – a grated apple.

Thus, for those of you who are not as familiar with the kitchen, latkes can be challenging. The temptation for a beginning cook to follow a recipe exactly will not produce the latkes of your dreams, and this deceptively simple treat gets better with a lot of trial and error. A lot. That said, fried potatoes are delicious in many forms, and you can totally eat “ugly” or disintegrated latkes out of a bowl with applesauce and sour cream…not that I have ever done that. Seriously, though, it’s worth the work and experimentation. In addition, the skills you gain making latkes apply to a lot of recipes, and a lot of Jewish recipes.

Spices on apples for applesauce
Adding spices to the apples in the process of making applesauce – we have cinnamon, turmeric, sugar, rosemary, and cloves in this one. Photo mine, November 2015.

I have included here a recipe for homemade applesauce, should you decide to make it. I have not been able to find a good source for the Jewish history of applesauce, but dishes with cooked apple have a long and illustrious history across the Jewish world. It is likely that applesauce emerged alongside kompot, a traditional and delicious stew of fruit. The normal American apple-cinnamon pairing is delicious, but I find the color and flavor are enhanced with a hefty dose of turmeric, my very favorite spice.

These recipes are approximately written but very flexible. If you want to add or take away things, do so – and if they’re really good, let me know what you did. Enjoy! And, of course, Khag Urim Sameakh to you and yours!

Latkes in the pan with chunks of apple in them
Latkes in progress – these have chunks of apple, which make them quite unwieldy, but oh-so-soft and juicy! Photo mine, December 2014.

Potato Latkes

Makes about 16 latkes (Measurements are extremely approximate)

4 large potatoes, peeled and grated (see step 1)

4-5 eggs

1/3-1/2 cup vegetable oil

1 tsp salt

1 tsp black pepper

1 medium apple, peeled and grated (see step 1)

½ cup flour

Oil for frying

  1. Grate the potatoes and the apple separately. I am including this as a step since this takes time. I grate by hand because I find grating therapeutic, but feel free to use a food mill or a food processor. It does save a lot of energy and time. Keep the grated potatoes in a bowl of water to prevent discoloration, unless gray latkes are your thing.
  2. When you’re done grating, drain the water from the potatoes, and squeeze them a little to get some extra water out.
  3. Add the eggs, oil, salt, black pepper, and grated apple, and mix thoroughly until blended.
  4. Add the flour and mix again until blended. You should have pieces of potato and apple coated in a thick batter. If your batter is too thin, add a few tablespoons of flour. If it is too thick, add another egg.
  5. Let the batter sit covered for ten minutes, ideally in the refrigerator.
  6. Heat your pan – ideally, a wide skillet. Then add a layer of oil – about ¼ of an inch. Also, make sure that your frying area is well ventilated.
  7. Add heaping tablespoons of the potato mixture into the pan and fry until the bottom is brown. Flip, then continue frying until the other side is brown. Remove and place on a pan lined with something to absorb the oil, like paper towels.
  8. Keep frying until you are finished with the mixture. Remember to replenish the pan with oil when it is low!
  9. Serve the latkes with sour cream, or applesauce. If you choose to go the homemade route with the applesauce, my recipe is below.

 

Homemade Applesauce

Based on a recipe by Karen Waltuck

Makes four to six cups applesauce

5 apples, cored and chopped roughly

½ cup sugar

1 tbsp ground cinnamon

1 tbsp ground turmeric

1 ½ tsp dried rosemary (yes you’re reading this correctly)

1 tsp ground pepper

1 tsp ground cumin

1 tsp vanilla extract

1 tsp salt

3 cloves

water

  1. Chopping and coring the apples make up much of the legwork of this recipe. Allot time for this.
  2. Place the apples, sugar, and spices into a pasta or stock pot and mix thoroughly. Add water so that the apples are floating above or are underneath about ¾ of an inch of water. If they are floating, don’t worry.
  3. Bring to a boil. Then simmer, stirring occasionally, for 1 to 1½ hours, or until the apples are very soft and the water has cooked down about 1 inch.
  4. Once the apples are soft, take the pot over another heat. Set up either a food mill or colander and spoon over a second pot, container, or bowl.
  5. Ladle the mixture into the food mill or colander gradually and push through. With a food mill, you can just crank. With a colander, you just spin the spoon around and the apples and sauce go through mashed, leaving the peels behind. Do this for all the sauce; you should have peels in the work colander and sauce in the bowl at the end. Discard the peels.
  6. Stir the sauce to evenly distribute the apple mash. Taste it and add a bit of lemon if you find it too sweet. If your sauce is a bit watery, don’t worry – pour off the most liquid bits and drink it! (It’s really good as an addition to soup stock as well.)

A Fried Hanukkah Miracle: Batter Doughnuts / Hanukkah Beignets

Beignets!
Beignets with some of my favorite toppings: left-to-right, Nutella, chili sugar, and cinnamon sugar – December 2014 (photo mine)

Recipe at the end of this post.

I’m normally not that into Hanukkah. The holiday itself I do not dislike – the miracle of the oil at the Second Temple was pretty awesome, and the general sense of cheer that takes over Jewish communities is welcome as people forget the solemn promise to “be nice” that they made on Yom Kippur. It’s just that compared to the glory of Shavuot with revelation and Ruth and cheesecake, the majesty of the Passover Seder, and the wackiness of having a Tree New Year on Tu BiShvat, Hanukkah is…just not that exciting. I don’t begrudge fellow Jewish-Americans for having made the holiday so materialistic and kitsch-ified to compete with Christmas – honestly, in a Christian country, what else would you expect? If it gets folks into Judaism or to learn about their or others’ Jewish heritage, that makes me pretty happy. Besides, I have neither the energy nor desire to harangue people about “messing up” a holiday that I simply just…am not that into.

There is one thing, however, that I do love about Hanukkah: the fried food, in constant supply. In order to commemorate that a day’s oil lasted eight at the Temple, it is considered traditional in most Jewish communities to eat food cooked in oil. One nearly universal thing about human communities, Jewish cultures included, is that if you tell people to cook food in oil, fried things will result. So Hanukkah is the Jewish fry-fest. You might be familiar with latkes, the Ashkenazi Jewish potato pancakes that populate both Hanukkah tables and Jewish plates throughout the winter. But there are also torzelli¸ the fried curly endives that Italian Jews eat, and the Colombian Jewish tradition of fried plantain discs (patacones). As a complete glutton for fried food – my favorite treat in a mostly healthy diet – I enjoy them all…but not as much as one category of food.

Beignets, with chocolate!
Chocolate beignets with powdered sugar – some of the powdered sugar has melted onto the beignets! – May 2014 (photo mine)

Chief among the fried food for me is the doughnut, a treat with a long Jewish history. Fried dough was already common in Jewish and non-Jewish communities in the Middle East in the 13th century, when it was mentioned by the Abbasid scholar (and medieval cookbook writer) Muhammad bin al-Hassan al-Baghdadi in a form similar to today’s Turkish lokma. Ashkenazi Jews make pontshkes, impossibly fluffy jelly doughnuts, borrowed from a Polish dessert already popular in medieval times. Moroccan and Tunisian Jews consumed local savory and sweet doughnuts alongside their Muslim neighbors, and many a Dutch Jew has delighted in the puffy oliebol. In Israel, the Ashkenazi pontshke tradition meshed with North African Jewish traditions to produce the sufganiyah – an even fluffier, sweeter jelly doughnut that is the scourge of Israeli dentists and delight of their patients. These are all absolutely, artery-clogging-ly delicious.

Besides the eating, what I like most about the Jewish doughnut is … how it is so very Jewish and un-Jewish. All of these “authentic” Jewish doughnut recipes reflect the myriad cultural influences, the worlds, and the places Jews have and continue to interact with in their cultures. There is the fact that these are all borrowed from, shared with, adjusted after contact with, and in imitation of our non-Jewish neighbors. Our ancestors were not concerned with being “pure” in their Jewish conduct, but rather celebrating the holidays with what they saw and knew throughout their lives. However, in our diasporic mindset, there is something so Jewish about that act: re-owning, retaking, and reworking the traditions of “exile” to make the diaspora “home.”

Mmm, sfenj.
Sfenj, Rabat, March 2015 (photo mine)

Of course this reworking is delicious. Let us take one of my favorite doughnuts as an example – the sfenj, an airy Moroccan doughnut traditionally eaten in the morning, often dipped in honey or sugar. (They are also known in some areas as ftayer.) Moroccan Jews traditionally enjoy a sweet version of these ring-shaped treats on Hanukkah, and some a bit more frequently than that. I was introduced to them first at a Jewish event long ago, and the unapologetic assault of carbohydrate and sugar and oil the sfenj provided had me hooked. I told myself, Hanukkah after Hanukkah, that I needed to recreate that taste. Later, when I visited Morocco myself, and learned more about the history of Moroccan Jewry, I would end up sampling and eating many, many more sfenj. They were all delicious.

I tried to make sfenj once, but got my beignet recipe instead. What happened was that I had invited two friends over, we got distracted, and when it was time to make the batter I realized that I did not have enough flour. Oops. We had a batter instead, but not the dough to shape into the traditional ring shape. The batter was fried anyway – I spooned it in, and out came fluffy, puffy balls that were sweet and chewy. In a few fits of experimentation – and one incident of “boiling Nutella” – I finally managed to get the recipe to the point that I could repeatedly recreate these fried treats. I am not sure if I should call them “doughnuts,” given that they are made with a batter. But they are not made with choux pastry, so are they “beignets”? The names “beignet” and “doughnut” have both stuck – though I lean slightly towards the former.

I’ve been making these beignets since that Hanukkah miracle – though I do intend to tackle sfenj one day. In fact, I taught a few friends how to make these beignet-doughnuts themselves, brought them to parties and potlucks, and may even bring them to work at some point. Of course, this Hanukkah, I intend to make them again as well.

Beignets in progress
Frying vanilla-ginger beignets, April 2015 (photo mine)

This recipe is quite flexible – I’ve made chocolate, vanilla ginger, and cinnamon versions of the beignets so far. They store well for a day or two in a sealed bag. Be sure to fry safely in a very well-ventilated place. I prefer to fry in a deep pan, a wok, or a large saucepan – I don’t have a deep-fryer, and you need to be able to quickly turn or flip the beignets.

Hanukkah Beignets/Batter Doughnuts

3-3.5 cups (400-450g) white or whole wheat flour

1 cup (200g) granulated sugar

1 packet yeast (or 1 tbsp fresh yeast)

~1.5 cups (~350ml) water (approximate measure)

1.5 tsp vanilla extract

3 tbsp honey or agave nectar (you can also make this up with about 2 tbsp extra sugar)

Canola, corn, rapeseed, sunflower, safflower, or vegetable oil

Optional: 1.5 tsp ground ginger (for ginger flavor)

Optional: 1-2 tbsp cocoa powder (for chocolate flavor, reduce the honey)

  1. Mix the flour, sugar, and yeast together until thoroughly combined.
  2. Add the water, vanilla extract, optional ingredients, and honey/agave nectar, and mix together until you have a thick, sticky batter. You might need to add more flour to achieve this.
  3. Cover, leaving some cracks for ventilation, and let “rise” for at least an hour.
  4. Heat oil in a deep pan or wok. (See frying tips at bottom of post.)
  5. Carefully spoon heaping tablespoons of batter into the pan of oil. You will need to scrape the batter off one spoon with the back of another spoon. I recommend not having more than five or six beignets in the pan at one time.
  6. Let cook until brown on one side, then flip (using a slotted spoon) and let cook until brown on the other side. The beignets should puff up.
  7. When golden brown on both sides, remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place on a plate to cool.
  8. Repeat steps 5-7 until you have fried up all the batter. Depending on the size of your beignets this can make anything from 16 to 36 beignets, I usually get about 20-25 off this recipe.
  9. When they have cooled down a bit, you can season them with powdered sugar. For the “normal” ones I occasionally like to dip them in Nutella, cinnamon sugar, or sugar mixed with dried chili pepper flakes.